Opioids and NSAIDs, often referred to as narcotics, can be prescribed by doctors to treat chronic pain, but this doesn’t mean they’re safe. While you can purchase NSAIDs such as ibuprofen from a store or local pharmacy, opioids like tramadol and morphine require a prescription due to their impact and possible effects on the body long term. In this article, we’re going to review the dangerous side effects of opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and provide some alternative ways to treat chronic pain that doesn’t involve popping pain pills every day.
Opioids are naturally found in the opium poppy plant and require a prescription. Taken to relieve severe pain, opioids block pain signals from the body to the brain. Opioids for pain relief help patients to feel relaxed, more comfortable, and are suitable for serious occasions.
NSAIDs can be taken as a tablet, capsule, cream, or even injection. Usually, they’re taken to treat painful conditions such as arthritis and can be bought over-the-counter without a prescription. They work by reducing inflammation in the body, easing pain by blocking a specific enzyme called cyclooxygenase.
According to the World Health Organization, 62 million people currently take opioids for pain relief. And 36.3 million people suffered from a drug use disorder in 2019, and unfortunately prescription opioid use is on the rise. ¹ While NSAIDs are used to reduce inflammation, treat headaches and migraines and bring down a fever, they’re not suitable for all and can cause some unwanted side effects. NSAIDs can cause stomach ulcers and trigger internal bleeding, as well as cause dizziness and allergic reactions. In rare cases, they can cause problems with the liver, kidneys, and heart. ²
Taking NSAIDs can be harmful to your body but opioid use can lead to death, due to the detrimental effects on parts of the brain that regulates breathing. Opioid overdose is a serious medical risk and can cause difficulties breathing and can render you unconscious. Worldwide there are approximately 500,000 deaths caused by drug use, and over 70 percent of these cases are related to patients taking opioids for pain relief. According to WHO, in the United States, the number of people dying from the side effects of opioids has increased by 120% between 2010 and 2018, with two-thirds of opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018 in the USA involving synthetic opioids. ³ Opioids are powerful drugs, but they are usually not the best way to treat long-term (chronic) pain, such as arthritis, low back pain, or frequent headaches. If you take opioids for a long time to manage your chronic pain, you may be at risk of addiction. The misuse of opioids is frightening because up to one in four people who take opioids long-term become addicted. Worst of all, data has shown that as many as 115 Americans die from an overdose of opioid painkillers every day, and hundreds more go to the emergency room.
Side effects of opioids have been recorded in between 50% and 80% of patients in clinical trials and include constipation, itching, and problems breathing. Since taking opioids for pain relief can increase airway resistance and decrease the potency of upper airways, it’s far better to try alternative treatments and therapies to ease chronic pain and discomfort rather than begin to rely on medication.
The harsh reality is that opioids pose a risk to all patients. Anyone taking prescription opioids is at risk for unintentional overdose or death and can become addicted. Remember, your doctor is a partner in your pain treatment plan - it’s important to talk about any and all side effects and concerns to make sure you’re getting the safest and most effective care.
Rather than risk the side effects of opioids and NSAIDs, consider alternative and holistic therapy to treat chronic pain. There is growing evidence that suggests that acupuncture, hypnosis, massage, and yoga can help ease pain and discomfort.
The American College of Rheumatology mentions several complementary approaches in its guidelines for the management of osteoarthritis of the hip or knee. The guidelines mention examples such as tai chi as one of several non-drug approaches that might be helpful for pain management. ⁴
Since these treatments don’t involve medication, you are not putting a substance into your body that could cause unwanted side effects. Instead, you are supporting joints through movement, stretching, and relaxation, allowing the body to gently heal and become stronger.